I’ve been re-reading some articles about Mastodon from early 2017, right around the time that it started to get some mainstream notice. I signed up for an account on mastodon.social around that time and launched tech.lgbt less than two months later in June 2017. I’ve been a supporter of the community, and have grown to enjoy my time there far more than my time on Twitter, despite having a longer history with the larger platform.

I’ve specifically been reading articles along the lines of “this platform is a fad and here’s why”, which to be fair could still come to pass. I doubt that will happen anytime soon with an additional two years of hindsight and growing communities.

A lot of these takes are reactionary in a way that suggests misunderstanding on part of the writers, or an attempt to garner more clicks for those stories. I can see both as understandable, based on the fallacies presented and the viewpoints that they represent.

Some Common Misconceptions About Mastodon

I’d like to walk through some of the common misconceptions around Mastodon, which generally would apply to a lot of IndieWeb services if they had the same level of notoriety and name recognition.

It Isn’t “True” Federation

This argument is the one that immediately lets me know the intent of the writer who espouses it. The argument is that technically, since Mastodon instances (the different sites running Mastodon software) are allowed to block other sites or control who has access, they aren’t truly federating.

What is Federation?

First, a definition. Federation in this sense is a bit nebulous, as there are a few ideas of what it means. Generally, the idea is that a user can have an account on a site where all of their information lives. You can have accounts on multiple sites if you want to have separation of identity, but you don’t need to. You can then interact with people on other sites, as long as neither side is stopping the other side from communicating.

In my case, that site is https://tech.lgbt/@david and you can contact me from almost any other instance by using @david@tech.lgbt. This is similar to my Twitter handle of @DavidWolfpaw, but with the addition of the server name that I am hosted at. I can talk to my friend Chris by sending a message to @chris@mastodon.chriswiegman.com, which will notify him in the same way that he would get on Twitter. Both of us are on separate instances of Mastodon, but we can communicate freely between them thanks to federation.

What is True Federation?

When people talk about Mastodon not actually being federated because instances can be locked down, or block other instances, I’ve invariably found that they come from a place of free speech absolutism.

Let’s be clear: I am not a free speech absolutist. I say as much in the Code of Conduct for tech.lgbt, where I have some rules set for being allowed to play in my sandbox. This is not unreasonable, and I state as much when I include that myself and any moderators have the sole discretion of what we consider unacceptable speech in our spaces.

I’ve never had anyone in good faith argue to me that I am silencing oppressed minority groups. The argument has only been used toward me by individuals that believe that a right to free speech includes a right to a platform. You can say things that are hateful or derogatory to others, but not on the server that I manage and am footing the bill for.

There are people using Mastodon that I don’t agree with. People who claimed a cartoon frog as their mascot and believe that my blocking their activity on my server amounts to abridging their first amendment rights. Saying that Mastodon isn’t truly federated because I can block them (as I can do on Twitter) is complaining that you want to say things and you want to force other people to listen. This is less a misconception than an intentional misunderstanding and misrepresentation of community behavior, but one that I see a lot of.

Screenshot of Twitter thread about Mastodon instances blocking other instances.
A screenshot (since Twitter isn’t forever!) of this thread on instance blocking

You Cannot Secure Your Identity

Another common misconception is around identity in the fediverse (the nickname given to communities connected via oStatus and ActivityPub enabled software like Mastodon and others). I admit, it isn’t something that most people are used to thinking about, given that most of our exposure to social media over the past few decades has been through walled-gardens, siloed off from one another. There is only one person with my username on Twitter, and likewise there are usernames that I want that people signed up for accounts with nearly a decade ago and don’t use that I can’t have.

I use @david as my handle on my Mastodon instance, but there are surely people using @david on instances elsewhere. The inclusion of my instance name is what fully identifies me and separates me from the other Davids out there.

This is more visible than on other platforms, but is not a unique concern. Think of all of the people named John Smith on Facebook. They all get to use the name that they want as a display name and be found by it, but Facebook identifies each of them separately by a unique ID. Or think of email services, which use the same username@domain to identify recipients. There is a david@hotmail.com who is likely different from david@aol.com and david@gmail.com, none of whom are me. With the combination of username and domain name you can identify the person that you want to send a message to. This system is so ingrained into our usage of email that we don’t even consider it, instead calling the full username and domain combo an email address.

You Cannot Bring Your Followers

This can also be described as a lack of portability. Though notably this misconception is less about the portability from Mastodon, which allows you to easily move instances if you choose, and more about the lack of portability offered by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks. Their businesses are built upon a locked-in network effect, where you have to use them if you want to interact with others that use them.

Via the settings interface of Mastodon you can migrate your account to another instance. This means that there is a built in way for you to leave one server and move to a different server without loss for whatever reason that you choose.

True, you won’t be able to automatically get all of the people from other platforms to follow you to a new platform, but that’s a network-effect problem that isn’t unique to Mastodon or other federated services. It’s more telling that the issue really stems from lack of interoperability with older platforms than with a service that happily lets you move freely, and allows for multiple integrations like Twitter/Mastodon cross-posters.

There is Poor Discoverability

Related to the prior fallacy of portability, there is an issue with discoverability on Mastodon as compared to sites like Instagram and Twitter which are partly built on being able to search for content. How many people actually use those services in this manner outside of hashtags is up for debate, but it is one difference between them that could be seen as a shortcoming.

By default, Mastodon instances only allow searching via hashtags. This means that someone has to have explicitly opted in to making their content searchable, a key distinction. On Twitter I regularly see people use misspellings and self-censorship of toxic terms to avoid dog-piling that can come from people who cruise loaded terms to find people to harass. There was a time that I did the same, avoiding using the term gamergate directly in any of my tweets, out of the concern that I’d be inviting bad faith interaction.

You can still search for individual users, search for content under hashtags, and on some instances do general searches. But there’s no simple way to do a fediverse-wide search on specific terms, and that’s partly the point. Mastodon is not seen as the place to grow your following and build a brand. It’s still a place to find new friends and rebuild your own networks in a different environment.

One last note about hashtags: you can use them in your profile for discoverability, create and pin an #Introduction post, which is fairly common, and you can also highlight specific hashtags on an instance as an admin, to let others get an idea of what it’s about.

Mastodon instance hashtags
Hashtags can show up as topics on the intro page to a Mastodon instance

It Costs Too Much

Finally, I’d like to discuss cost, one of the other misconceptions of the older articles that I’d read. As a general user, you can join any number of free instances. The costs are generally borne by the admins of the instance, sometimes helped out by donations, like Patreon accounts (here’s my plug!). There are some instances that are membership only, with or without some sort of dues. Finally, you can host your own instance, which can cost more or less depending on your needs including server performance and number of users.

The cost is not insignificant, but I’m also using Mastodon in a way that is meant to support multiple users. There is a built-in method to limit users of your instance, or even make it a single user instance, so that all activity on it is created and managed by one person. That could run well on the most budget level of VPS. I can imagine that something like mastodon.social can run into thousands of dollars for hosting, but that is a drop in the bucket of hosting costs that are hidden from users by larger social networks.

In my case, I am running https://tech.lgbt on a $15/month Digital Ocean droplet, after migrating recently from Linode. I also pay them for their cloud backup solution at $2/month as a cheap just-in-case extra peace of mind. I pay around $39/year for the domain, which is due to the unique TLD that I’ve chosen for it. On top of these costs I pay for AWS media storage to make it serve faster and cheaper, which I estimate at under $5/month. In total, this brings running the instance to around $25/month, which is honestly around $1/month/user for how regularly active some people are.

Final Thoughts

A word that I’ve been using a lot recently around various people and modes of discourse is disingenuous. Much of the criticism around Mastodon and other federated platforms has been missing the point or simply incorrect. It’s not that there is no true criticism, which should exist for every platform and mode of thinking. It’s that much of it appears to be coming from a disingenuous place, from those looking to further an ideology of division over one of community founded upon mutual respect.

There are flaws in Mastodon, as in every platform and set of communities. But the above misconceptions are not those flaws, and are misunderstandings that I hope to clear up.

If you have any questions about these services, I can try to help answer them, or at least direct you toward resources that may better be able to help. I’m happy to discuss here, or via your own Mastodon account directed toward https://tech.lgbt/@david. See you in the fediverse!

Next week I’ll give a primer on Mastodon and how to get started with it as a user. Subscribe to get notified when this and other new articles are published.

Subscribe to the 🐺🐾 Newsletter

I’m currently reading Gretchen McCulloch’s new book, ‘Because Internet’, which serves as an overview of linguistic study of the evolution of written (and sometimes spoken) communication brought about by the mass adoption of the internet. Both McCulloch and I implement one of the changes noted earlier on: the word internet has lost its capitalization over the years, with the AP style guide making it “official” in 2016.

But the question that I want to address isn’t the correct usage of capitalization, or even correct grammar in general. After all, I’ve been known to start sentences (or even full paragraphs, as is the case here) with conjunctions, and I’ll propose that ending with a preposition is where the written word is going to.

Instead, I want to discuss my usage of double quotes around the word official above, emphasizing my usage of the word, and providing a big no-no, at least according to Weird Al.

What is Official Usage Anyway?

While the thrust of my argument is that language rules are nothing more than convention, I’ll buttress my credentials in making this claim. I studied linguistics as part of my degree, though I did not take it nearly as far as McCulloch or professional linguists. Language as a concept has always interested me, as we are exposed to the spoken and written word at almost all times and don’t often stop to give thought as to why things are the way they are. Only when something is egregiously incorrect do we consider how a statement could be made more clear.

I imagine that it’s a stereotype that I got interested in computers because they are predicatable in a way that other humans aren’t, and that they are understandable in a way that language so often isn’t. Nuance can be hard to grasp over the myriad inflections, intonations, cadences, rhythms, pitches, and all other vocalizations that I’m forgetting. Try asking several people how they are feeling, and see if you can identify the differences in each utterance of “fine” that you receive in reply.

I can’t speak to the experiences of a large portion of the world who grow up in multilingual environments and intuit the rules in a different way. Human language is taught to be the same as programming languages when it comes to translating and learning while in higher education. You take a phrase, break it into component parts, find the right words, and consider the rules on order and variant usage. Sometimes you luck out with cognates, sometimes you have to think about the parts of speech in theory more than you ever do in your first tongue.

The difference between language spoken in public versus what you’re taught in school can be huge. The rules that are followed can help while learning, but you’ll quickly realize that humans abhor authority when expression of meaning can only occur when directly contradicting many official usage edicts that are passed down as if they were always in existence.

Decentralization of the Meaning of the Written Word

The internet (and the lowercase-w web, while we’re at it), have done a great deal to increase proliferation of alternative writing. This includes abbreviations like wtf, lol, and ftw, which serve the purpose of expressing a longer thought in fewer letters, a boon to slow typists and fat-fingered phone users alike. This also includes the introduction of new concepts and phrases, or words becoming untethered from their original meaning to give us entirely new abstractions. Snowflake used to describe a hexagonal formation of ice crystal falling from a storm, not as a derogatory term towards someone who is being sensitive.

For the supposed purists that cannot get behind the figurative use of the word literally, or the addition of new words like bougie and rando, please explain to me why we bother with flammable and inflammable, both words that predate the internet and signify that something is going to catch fire.

No one is waiting for permission to update language for the present and future based on but not being bound by the past. As McCulloch points out, many conventions, especially in English, come from historical conquests and infighting, as well as an embarrassment of the language as a second class citizen among other languages that were perceived as more civilized.

If there is concern over the descent of communication due to the visual nature of the internet, consider that children and teens are being exposed to more written and spoken language than at any time in the past, and are likewise writing far more than at any point in history. You may argue that status updates aren’t a replacement for the Great American Novel, with it’s capitalized gravitas, but you are unlikely to have penned ‘Moby Dick’ before making such a declaration.

I find some validity in the concern that language practices could cause a bifurcation of meaning, but only in short spurts. Sure, there are some higher profile differences between lol signifying “laugh out loud” versus “lots of love” depending generally on age, but that makes my point even more clear: decentralization of language doesn’t belong to the youthful internet denizens alone. It belongs to anyone who is unafraid to take a leap of faith with their phrasing, and embrace when others likewise reciprocate with new meaning of their own.

Earlier I read this article on Jonathan Pizarro’s blog: Radio Free Mister Pizarro. In it he describes why he left Facebook recently. Some of his story mirrors my own, in how networks like these

I deleted my account about six weeks ago, but like Jonathan, my discontent and disinterest in the platform began much earlier. I removed all of my interests, likes, friends, and non-essential groups and pages about two years ago, around the same time that I unlinked my Twitter account from Facebook, which removed around 95% of the content that I’d previously been posting to the platform.

Here’s a handy demonstration since it’s not easy to find the delete page

Why was I ever on Facebook?

Honestly it was never really something that interested me. I’m generally behind the curve on social media, though I enjoy the fact that cultures can exist online. I never paid much mind to Myspace, and I only signed up for Facebook in the Fall of 2005 due to school. It was my first semester at UCF, and a classmate on a group project told us that she’d post info for our project to her Facebook page.

I assumed that it functioned the same as Myspace, where visitors who weren’t logged in would still be able to see what was posted, but from the start Facebook was a highly walled garden. I created an account because I didn’t give much thought to the bargain that I was striking, one that I don’t think many of us do.

That bargain is one that many people have taken to discussing over the past few months, but I’ve not seen many accounts of people actually changing behavior due to any scandal that hits the company. Indeed, while there may have been temporary drop-off, there’s proof that the Facebook app is addicting based on download numbers in March of this year, as news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal was becoming widely reported.

https://twitter.com/antoniogm/status/985987678976983041

How much does it provide me?

Right now it’s providing minor headaches, at best. But they are small compared to the larger headaches that I was feeling beforehand. If you’ve ever seen that South Park episode about Facebook, you know some of those headaches too. The social obligation and freemium gaming ones, not the Tronesque nightmare. Or maybe you do, and if so fine, live your own life.

Seriously, I’ve lived the above almost verbatim.

I no longer have access to the WordPress Orlando Facebook group that I started, but the group already had several administrators. I handed off ownership to other organizers, and not only trust that they will do a good job managing it, but won’t be personally affected if they don’t.

I no longer get to use my business pages, but I’ll be totally honest and say that I never used them, and the bit that I did was mainly out of the exhortations that if I didn’t have them my business wasn’t going to thrive. I can’t say that having a Facebook page would hurt my business, but I certainly never used it to get any leads.

I don’t see event invites, but for the events that I would be going to, I’ll know about them in other ways. If I don’t hear about an event, then in a solipsistic view, did it ever really happen?

So why did I leave?

I’m already used to the conversation with others that I missed something that they or someone else posted since I’m not following them, but that’s one area that I’ve been able to avoid FOMO for years. I have the privilege of not relying on someone else’s news to define how I act, and if it directly relates to me, they would know other ways to contact me. If they don’t find another way to contact me I consider it just as much on them. I don’t think that it’s an unacceptable burden to have someone who wants to contact me have to look at a second source, many of which are readily available and searchable.

But still, none of those are the real reason that I deleted my account. I quit years ago due to the disgust at myself for the enchantment with a feed that can be called toxic at the best of times even when solely populated by a friends list.

The real reason for deletion had as much to do with making a statement and sticking to ideals as anything else. While I’m not a first-class builder or user of decentralized and Indieweb technologies (though I’m actively working to change that), I agree with the idea that we should have viable alternatives to handing over all of our stuff to one company. I did write last week about running an Alternative to Twitter, which right now is more of a testbed and experiment than anything else. I don’t think that services like Mastodon will get widespread adoption without an as-yet-unseen killer app, but they are a starting point for a conversation that is gaining ground.

I don’t want to worry about what a company will do with my data. Or as I described on Saturday, whether I can even request that data be deleted when I’m done with the service. I want to be part of that idealized world where we get to have a say in what we do on the internet. It seems like more and more is already technically feasible, and it’s just the will of creators and consumers (and hopefully more overlap of the two) to put decentralized systems to use. I want to be a part of that solution.

Deleting Facebook doesn’t directly help with that in my case. But it doesn’t hurt either. And it’s only personally doing me good.

I feel like it’s time for a bit of a rant. There’s a new phrase that I’ve begun noticing more frequently over the past year: that “____ Broke the Internet”. Fill in the blanks with whatever thing you deem important enough to command the intention of millions of people, and it is quite literally smashing the internet to pieces as we speak. When you have formerly reputable journalism organizations reduced to listicles to get readers , you have Time making a Top 10 Things that Broke the Internet retrospective.

When you search for the phrase, the event that popularized and encouraged comparison of the term was Paper magazine publishing nude photos of Kim Kardashian last year. Paul Ford did a good, non-tech overview of how Paper worked in the week leading up to the release of the photos to scale their servers to handle the load. He spends a good amount of time talking about how their team wanted to ensure a high load of potentially hundreds of millions of viewers. They ended up being overly optimistic by a full order of magnitude, but did still have a highly discussed topic.

Other events have come up that people claim “broke the internet”. Last week, a photo of a dress was posted to Tumblr, which became s viral phenomenon, being shared and discussed by millions of people.

tweet from Taylor Swift about dress
Even T-Swift had to weigh in

Why is it that we’re so quick to describe something on the internet in such bombastic terms? If you think of certain websites and applications that are used by tens or hundreds of millions of people per day, you don’t hear people talking like that. Google and Facebook don’t “break” the internet every day while serving up content (including most of the content that is discussed).

I think that it’s a shared cultural moment. There’s much talk about the media landscape becoming more fractured, with niches existing to please every individual taste. Up until the 2010 Super Bowl, the most watched television event was the M.A.S.H. series finale, barely missing maintaining it’s 1983 record of 105.9 million live viewers. A list of the highest attended movies of all time shows that you have to jump down to 2009’s ‘Avatar’ at #24 just to find a movie released in the past 15 years.

Anything that can get a few million people simultaneously discussing it gives us a taste of that collective culture that we’ve lost. It’s a way to connect with other people reliably outside of standard small talk. The excitement of shared experiences with all levels of social circles is harder and harder to come by with the echo chambers that we live in, and having them is a point of elation.

But please, don’t tell me that you broke the internet. We’re all fine here, thanks.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of enjoying afternoon tea time at Infusion Tea (it’s tasty, whether it sounds snooty or not :D), followed by a screening of ‘Citizenfour’, Laura Poitras’ documentary on her interactions with Edward Snowden and the NSA file leak that he has become famous for.

Last weekend I watched ‘The Imitation Game’, a stylized biopic of the life of Alan Turing, considered to be the father of modern computing.

Yesterday, marking the two year anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death, I watched ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’, a documentary about his life and work. The documentary is creative commons licensed, so in addition to supporting the filmmakers by buying or renting it, you can also freely and legally torrent it or watch it on Youtube and other sources.

There are always movies, large and small, that chronicle the lives and exploits of famous people, and many computer industry professionals are becoming famous in their own right. The dot-com bubble may have cast a long shadow over the industry of web entrepreneurs, but the successes of wunderkinds in shaping our digital lives (and filling their physical bank accounts) over the past decade has been a strong factor in making geek and nerd positive, rather than negative terms.

I have a lot that I could say about each of these three men profiled in these movies. I’ve spoken in the past about my love of ‘The Social Network’ and Mark Zuckerberg and ‘The Transcendent Man’ as a biography of Ray Kurzweil, among others. I could talk about how I can identify with Alan Turing, both in inability to connect oftentimes, as well as the outsider status of being homosexual. I could talk about how both Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz made key decisions informed on their digital prowess, something that I try to do even if nowhere near as monumental as their decisions.

What I think I can say is that films like these – stylized or straightforward, spectacles or small-takes – give us insight into the inner workings of people who are potentially just like us, harnessing the power of computers to affect many others. Increasingly, we’re living in communities that transcend physical borders, but that are still constricted by cultural ones. Watch them, digest whatever lessons that you choose from them, and use that information to develop your own ideas and companies. Just let me know when a film is made of your life, so I can buy my ticket. 🙂

Photo of Aaron Swartz by gillyyouner is licensed under CC BY 2.0